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Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?

In the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, a few hours east of San Francisco, are the Moaning Caverns, a cave system that begins, after a narrow, twisting descent of 30-some feet, with an abrupt 180-foot drop. The Park Service has found ancient human skeletons at the bottom of the drop. Native Americans living there at the time didn’t make human sacrifices. Instead, these explorers took one step too far in the gloom. The skeletons belonged to adolescents.

No surprises there. After all, adolescence is the time of life when someone is most likely to join a cult, kill, be killed, invent an art form, help overthrow a dictator, ethnically cleanse a village, care for the needy, transform physics, adopt a hideous fashion style, commit to God, and be convinced that all the forces of history have converged to make this moment the most consequential ever, fraught with peril and promise.

For all this we can thank the teenage brain. Some have argued adolescence is a cultural construct. In traditional cultures, there is typically a single qualitative transition to puberty. After that, the individual is a young adult. Yet the progression from birth to adulthood is not smoothly linear. The teenage brain is unique. It’s not merely an adult brain that is half-cooked or a child’s brain left unrefrigerated for too long. Its distinctiveness arises from a key region, the frontal cortex, not being fully developed. This largely explains the turbulence of adolescence. It also reflects an important evolutionary pressure.

The frontal cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. It’s where the sensible mature stuff happens: long-term planning, executive function, impulse control, and emotional regulation. It’s what makes you do the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do. But its neurons are not fully wired up until your mid-20s. Why?

The delayed maturation of the frontal cortex also helps explain the defining feature of adolescence, namely the weird predilection for bungee jumping.

It’s a central tenet of genetics that the genome that we start off life with, back when we were just a fertilized egg, is passed on to every subsequent cell in the body. But if the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully mature, it’s the brain region least shaped by that genome and most sculpted by experience.

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